Tolerance and Bullying

Lately there’s been a lot of discussion about childhood, adolescent and young adult bullying in schools. The bullying can take the form of psychological, emotional, physical and, more recently, cyber abuse. Last week, Tyler Clementi, a young gay man and Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide after his roommate secretly videotaped him having sex and broadcast it on the Internet.

Bullying is a complex topic. If you look at it as the exploitation of a power inequity, the implications reach far and wide. In some sense, bullying is the abuse of power. A bigger, stronger, tougher kid has more of a certain kind of power than a smaller, weaker kid.

I remember when I was a child, I was kind of small, thin and less developed physically than most of my classmates. I clearly remember compensating for this discrepancy by developing a sharp wit and verbal acuity.

Where I grew up (the Lower East Side of Manhattan), a sharp wit was definitely a weapon. I remember learning what the word “ranking” meant in third grade or so. You would “rank” on somebody or, better yet, on their mother, thus making them look stupid or inept in some way. It was a major sport at the public schools and playgrounds where I hung out.

Of course, the ultimate weapon and final recourse would be physical fighting, and if you weren’t good at that, the physically stronger person could kind of get the last word in. But right up to that moment, the main battleground was verbal and psychological.

If you really carry forth the bullying mode into the adult world, you have to look at things like military, economic and social inequities in societies and nations. There are many examples of the strong abusing their power over weaker countries and of majorities abusing their power over minorities, and it is easy to see examples of bullying within communities, societies and nations.

Sometimes the bully has a well-developed logic justifying his or her actions; sometimes it is just cavalier use and abuse of power. The real question for all of us to ask is how to hold power to accountability, and how to create an environment in which strength comes with morality and a sense of care and responsibility for everybody. This is fundamentally an ethical issue. Where do people learn ethics? At home, in school, at their “church” and in their community.

Some types of bullying are a product of gross and unconscious aggression and abuse. Underlying certain aspects of bullying, however, is a more subtle intolerance for others who are different from us in some way. Somehow, genuine tolerance for others with different beliefs is a rare and elusive virtue these days. If you scratch under the surface of most belief systems, you will, I think, find the fixed view that our answer is the better answer. When tolerance is expressed, it seems to have three levels:

I believe that my way is right, but I also acknowledge that others have different beliefs, and therefore I will acknowledge their right to hold those beliefs, and out of a sense of decorum, I will not denigrate (at least in public) their beliefs.
I have a profound connection with my beliefs, but I also acknowledge that others may have a similar conviction in theirs, and I will suspend judgment in order to accord them the same courtesy that I would like to be afforded.

I have a strong connection with my beliefs, but I completely respect the fact that others may hold other beliefs potentially of equal, or perhaps even superior validity. I remain humble and open and am willing to explore, compare and even yield when presented with new ideas outside of my own belief system.

Obviously, the third level is as rare as a snowflake in June.